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Making Friends With First-Generation Immigrants

6 years ago written by

Ya Feng stood weeping. My wife, Jan, had just shared the news we were moving to another city. We had reached out to the immigrants in our city for the past seven years, and Ya Feng was a friend. Jan taught her children piano lessons. We enjoyed special occasions together. Ours was the first American home she had been in, though she had lived more than 10 years in our city. No other Americans had ever invited her to their home. Now that relationship was being severed. In broken sobs and through her husband’s translation, the pain came out: “Before you came, I didn’t have any friends.”

In “The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Americans” (, Stephanie Faul writes, “Permanent relationships are what Americas fear the most. This is a nation whose most fundamental social relationship is the casual acquaintance.” One of the primary needs of those who have come to live with us from other countries is significant relationships. Imagine what it is like to leave behind your network of relatives and friendships to venture into a new country.

Abraham, sometimes referred to as the father of our faith, was in a similar situation. God’s first words to Abram (as he was known at the time) were to call him to be an immigrant: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). The promise was that he would be made into a great nation, but the road to the promise was treacherous and risky. He had to leave behind his security and travel to an unknown destination. When he reached Canaan, it was a land in the midst of famine. So Abram went to live in Egypt for a while. Abram had already left his homeland and was a foreigner in Canaan. Now, he was a foreigner in Egypt.

As he was entering Egypt, he convinced his wife, Sarai, to pose as his sister rather than his wife. From our perspective, we can hardly understand his disregard for the sanctity of their marriage. But it is a vivid picture of how fear can be the motivating factor for a foreigner. Abram wants to be accepted in the new culture.

It is a challenge for most of us living in our birth culture to bridge the gap and understand what it is like for someone to live with us from another culture. “After all, they came here, they should learn our language and our ways.” It is amazing how few Americans take a similar approach when visiting another culture.

Let’s push back into our spiritual heritage and realize our roots are in being strangers. The first call to Abram is to be an immigrant. Historically, our primary identification is not with the Canaanites or the Egyptians but with the immigrant Abram/Abraham. Moses instructed the Israelites that when they finally settled into the promised land and gathered the first fruits from the soil of the land, they should place the first fruits in a basket and take it to the priests and declare before the Lord, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor” (Deuteronomy 26:5–6).

We have interests in reaching those from other cultures who live among us. First, we believe Christ died for all and the gospel has no national boundaries. There is not a preferred culture in the kingdom of God. The globalization taking place is a huge opportunity for the expansion of the kingdom.

Second, the best people to reach people from other cultures are people who are bicultural. It is strategic to be reaching out to those from other cultures, because they have a more effective reach back into their native culture as well as across cultural lines here. (See “You Don’t Have to Cross the Ocean to Reach the World: The Power of Local Cross-Cultural Ministry” by David Boyd,

Reaching those from other cultures starts with building relationships. It’s not rocket science. Almost anyone can do it. All it takes is an open heart. When we started reaching out to those who are first-generation immigrants, we began by visiting Chinese restaurants during off-peak times. It was as simple as having conversations and showing interest without being nosy and pushy. We noticed that in the summer, some of the restaurant owners’ children were spending most of the day in the restaurant. At first, we simply took coloring books and crayons for them. Eventually, after a long time of relationship building, we asked permission to take the kids to the park.

First-generation immigrants can use a lot of assistance. They just need someone they can trust. Imagine what it would be like for you to go to a country where you don’t know the language and cultural norms and try to get a driver’s license. Imagine trying to purchase a home and getting the utilities hooked up. Imagine trying to find a doctor and being unable to describe what is wrong. Imagine what it is like to try to establish a business. Imagine trying to learn the language when you work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 364 days a year. Undoubtedly, there are many means for assistance in the United States for immigrants, but one need our government can’t provide is a friend to trust.

Gerald Coates is the director of global church advocacy for Free Methodist World Missions. This article is an excerpt from “Go Global,” a new book coming this fall in the FreeMo Journal series that can be ordered at

Article Categories:
[World] · Culture · L + L August 2017 · Magazine · US & World

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